by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MINNEAPOLIS — They were pouring champagne on each other’s heads, screaming, laughing, celebrating in the usual way for world champions — when suddenly, in the midst of this clubhouse euphoria somebody screamed: “OUT TO THE FIELD!” And out they charged, en masse, all these alcohol-soaked Minnesota Twins, the most unlikely World Series winners in some time, pushing through the tunnel and slapping hands and camera lights and finally, finally, emerging back to where it all happened, back to the Metrodome field where they had captured Game 7, a title, and the hearts of every Minnesotan and every closet underdog watching across the country.

Twins win. How about that? Beat the St. Louis Cardinals four times in seven tries. And here, on the artificial turf, some in socks and undershirts, they lept into each other’s arms again — as they had on that final ground ball by Willie McGee that ended this 4-2 finale 30 minutes earlier. They lept and yelped and grabbed a red-balled microphone to shout thanks to the thunderous crowd, nearly all of whom were still here, they never stopped screaming, certain their heroes would return one more time.

“DID WE DO IT?” screamed Kent Hrbek, the home-grown first- baseman, holding the microphone like a lounge singer.

“YAAAAAAAH!” answered the crowd.

“WE’RE NUMBER ONE!” screamed center fielder Kirby Puckett, his body-builder frame popping out from his soaking T-shirt.

“YAAAAAAAH!” answered the crowd.

It was every party ever thrown rolled into the world’s largest locker room. And well it should be. Why shower alone? The Twins owe much of this stunning World Series title to the undying crowd, which thumped and danced and roared and waved hankies until anything less than victory became totally impossible.

“That last inning was the weirdest feeling,” third baseman Gary Gaetti would say, “it was so loud it just didn’t seem real. It seemed like I was out of my body, watching down, like some TV camera. It’s like, ‘I’ve seen this before on TV, teams win the World Series, but now, all of a sudden, I’m in it, man!’ It’s like. . . . I can’t believe it!” B elieve it. Twins win the World Series. Cinderella found her slipper. Pinocchio is a real boy again. All things good come true for the those who wait, and fans in this city have waited forever for this. They got it. The team that sported the worst record of all the division winners, the team that was mincemeat on the road, the team that carted around the nickname “Twinkies” until a few weeks ago — and was 150-1 to win the World Series when this season began — is now champion of the baseball world.

How about that?

“We had a different guy contribute every night,” said a beaming Greg Gagne, the shortstop, whose infield single in the sixth with the bases loaded drove in the winning run. “It’s been that way the whole Series and playoffs. That’s how we won.”

Actually, how they won this final game of the year was less Minnesota style than St. Louis: a few runs, a hit here or there, a few walks, scrape and scratch and keep your pitching tight. No homers. No big innings. But, hey. It only figures. About the only thing the Twins hadn’t done in this Series was beat the Cardinals at their own game.

“Bye Bye Birdies!” read a sign in the stands.

Crude, but true.

Back on the field, the players were joined by their families and friends. It was after 11 p.m. Tomorrow was a work day. Nobody cared. The crowd stayed put. The loudspeakers blared out the Twins theme song, which has dominated the airwaves here like no chart-buster ever could.

“LET’S PARTY!” screamed right fielder Tom Brunansky, his voice reverberating off the Teflon roof.

And suddenly, spontaneously, the Twins took off for a victory lap, jogging together along the foul lines, laughing, carrying their children, holding their wives’ hands, pointing and waving to the thunderous crowd. And in the middle was Frank Viola, the pitcher who had won Game 1 and Game 7, the latter on three days’ rest, and had captured, rightfully so, the World Series MVP.

“Amazing,” mumbled a veteran reporter who has covered a dozen of these World Series, as he observed the scene.

Amazing. And typical. After all, these Twins have been called a
“storybook” team; mostly by people who write stories for a living. And why not? Here is a classic cast of funny faces and funny bodies and foreign accents that wakes up this morning world champions of baseball.

Who knew of Gaetti, the tough-talking third baseman, before his excellent post-season? Who, three weeks ago, could identify the beefy face of Hrbek, or the fire-hydrant physique of Puckett, or the beard man, Bert Blyleven? Juan Berenguer put his sneering, mustachioed face on a most-wanted poster for next season, and Joe Niekro was caught smiling for the whole Neikro family (he is its first Series winner) and if Les Straker from Venezuela didn’t get more publicity than any other 8-10 rookie in history, well, something’s wrong with the machinery.

Don Baylor, the ageless veteran? Gagne, the reformed teenage drug-abuser? Tom Kelly, the youngest manager in the game? Face it. The Twins simply had an abundance of personality — far more than the surly Cardinals — and, as any story teller will attest, you need personality to make characters work. T hey overcame plenty in this seventh game, as they have most of the post-season. The Cardinals scored two runs early, and when the Twins tried to retaliate in the second inning, they were robbed of a run by home plate umpire Dave Phillips, who called a sliding Baylor out at the plate when replays showed he was clearly safe. Puckett was thrown out trying for third base on a wild pitch in the fifth. Gaetti was nailed at home plate despite a crushing slam into Cardinals catcher Steve Lake.

Out. Out. For a while there, the Twins appeared to be seduced by the belief that they were beyond losing.

In the end, they were. A moment here for the St. Louis Cardinals, who should also be painted in heroic colors, despite their loss. Here is the least- powerful team in the National League, missing half its power (injured jack Clark and Terry Pendleton) and facing the home team in the year of the home team. Their pitching was, by necessity, depleted down to its last swipes, and Whitey Herzog did all he could just to stay afloat. It is true, the Cardinals have now blown four straight chances to win a World seres (they led in ’85 against Kansas City, 3-1, and this year, 3-2) but it is also true that they have made the sport’s final dance three times in six years. No other team comes close.

“We got to the seventh game of the World Series,” Herzog said. “If I could do that for the next 10 years I’d be happy.” What more could he say? He was playing against power, pitching, karma, and 10 jet engines’ worth of noise. The Cardinals made more of a game out of this finale than anyone expected. Credit guts, experience and excellent managing.

Just a few runs short.

So here’s where we leave the World Champions, taking a victory lap as the music from “Star Wars” plays and the players turn into cheerleaders for the crowd. Heroes? You bet. Wherever they go for the rest of their Minnesota lives. Not for what they did, but how they did it: corralling destiny, tightening the rope, and saying: “You’re coming with us.” And dragging an entire state along as well.

So good for them. The fact is, it would have been a shame for the Twins to get this far and stumble. Nobody is calling them the best team in baseball. But they were the best in the post-season, and they wove a wonderful tapestry: a grand-slam opening, a quick 2-0 lead, then three losses in St. Louis, twice nickel-and-dimed to death, then a muscleman display in Game 6, and finally this, Game 7, a dance with 55,000 partners.

And so ends a baseball season. It began with anger over free- agency collusion, and was marred with corked bats and scuffed baseballs, and yet still found time to witness hitting streaks, great pennant races, and the most exciting final two weeks in AL East history. It ends, as it should, in baseball — no talk of money, contracts or cheating — a euphoria brought on by a crazy, powerful, and finally teary-eyed bunch of victory- lappers, who prove that the game remains the thing. And they were one game better than everybody.

How about that?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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